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TCC Tip: When to Buy
The clues: when it's time to dump your old car.
by Eric Peters (2004-06-28)

If you're shopping for a different car, you know that getting rid of "Old Faithful" is tough - and not just for sentimental reasons. Figuring out when the time has come to start thinking about a new car is not a linear or exact science. Ultimately, it's a judgment call based on how much money you're spending to keep what you've got in serviceable condition.

First the good news - and it really is exceptionally good news. Though new cars and trucks are more expensive to buy than ever, with typical loans now stretching to five or even six years, they also can be counted on to provide safe, reliable transportation for a solid decade or longer. The old paradigm of ditching a car once the odometer creeps near the 100,000-mile mark is no longer valid. Assuming decent treatment and regular maintenance, a typical late-model vehicle should not start having significant problems, or cost a dumpster-load of money to maintain, until it is closer to 150,000 miles - even 200,000 miles, if you baby it.

However, when the "little things" begin to add up, it's time to start thinking about new wheels. A key thing is to keep track of what you're fixing, so you can get an idea of how much you're spending on a yearly basis. When you begin to approach what you'd have to shell out in the form of monthly payments, that's when it's time to start shopping.

Another thing: A great many people fall into the trap of thinking that after they fix this or pay to have that replaced, the car will be "good as new," or at least, good to go for another few thousand miles. It may well be. But there's no guarantee that another, entirely different, problem will not crop up tomorrow or next week. One new part does not a new car make; install a new water pump, for example, and you still have an old engine.

The worst scenario of all is having a vehicle that's no longer worth very much and which then needs a significant repair, such as a new transmission. It's a no-win situation, because if you don't get the car fixed, it's nearly worthless. On the other hand, putting $1500 worth of transmission work into a car worth $2500 does not mean the car is now worth $3800. It's actually worth exactly what it was worth before the repair - not a great consolation when the bill from the tranny shop comes due. And then there's always the possibility that something else will go wrong next week. There's a reason why some old cars are known as "money pits."

Avoidance maneuver
So how does one avoid all this? Well, as a general rule, the service life of most new cars - the amount of time they can be expected to perform without major component failure - is about 150,000 miles. Some cars will last much longer, especially if they are very well maintained and treated gently. But for the most part, the typical car will begin to develop problems around the century and a half-mark.

Often, these are not major things, like a catastrophic engine failure or a croaked transmission. Rather they are the nickle-and-dime repairs that quickly add up, such as the need for an air conditioner rebuild, or major suspension or brake work, particularly if the vehicle has ABS (which can cost big bucks).

In fact, on a late-model car, it is the electronics (particularly those related to the fuel and emissions systems) that can cause expensive headaches as the vehicle ages. There is an engineering axiom that states the more complex a system, the more likely problems will develop - and the more difficult those problems will be to find and fix. A late-model car is more complex in many ways than the Apollo capsule that went to the moon. It has dozens of different sensors, a complex computer "brain" that oversees almost all aspects of engine operation, and myriad wires and electrical connections. These components are subjected to extreme conditions and constant cycling between extreme heat and cold. That they perform as well as they do, for as long as they do, verges on the miraculous.

Still, they will eventually develop problems and fail. Again, this usually starts to happen around 150,000 miles, or after about 10 years. There is very little in life more annoying than having an older, late model car with constant electrical gremlins such as inexplicable stalling, surging engine idle, overheating and/or over-cooling.

The smart thing to do at this point? Triage the thing as best (read: cheaply) as you can and sell it while it still runs decently. As bad as it is having an older car that doesn't run well, it's worse having a hard-starting, constant stalling, "check engine" lighting beast on your hands.
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